There’s a good line at the beginning of Christopher Frayling’s commentary on the Criterion release of The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s standard-setting gothic horror adaptation from 1961: “Horror movies are meant to be more straightforward than this.” He’s talking about the ambiguous opening of The Innocents, and the uncertainty that lies over that film like a blanket, but the sentiment applies to The Little Stranger as well.
Probably doesn’t have to be said, but I disagree with the quote. Flexibility is horror’s strength. In The Little Stranger, which considers class divides through chilly supernatural unease, the genre is one of several paints on the palette. The film is stronger for using horror as an accent.
The setting is an old manor house called Hundreds Hall. The pile of bricks once hosted grand lawn parties that drew all classes from nearby villages; it was an economic center that created jobs and envy in equal measure. Post-war boom days of the late teens, however, are merely echoes in the aftermath of WWII. Hundreds Hall, like the society around it, is battered by a wave of change.
Faraday, played with a stiff upper lip by Domhnall Gleeson, is a stolid country doctor who is called to the Hall. He finds three residents. The elder Lady Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) can’t keep the place going on her own. She still mourns her daughter Susan, who died as a child. The Lady’s adult daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) shoulders the work of running the estate. Caroline’s brother Roderick (Will Poulter), a former RAF pilot twisted by war wounds, stalks the grounds.
Then there’s the maid, Betty (Liv Hill), whose complaint draws Faraday to the Hall. Serving alone in the house is driving Betty a little crazy, and she fakes an illness to get out of the mansion. Faraday is bemused by Betty’s complaint, not least because he has his own history with the house. His mother worked for the Ayres family as a servant in the decades-gone glory days. For him, the place represents all his aspirations. Faraday admits in voiceover that the Hall had cast a spell on him when he visited as a child. On one level The Little Stranger is concerned with unpacking the degree to which his narration is reliable.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (who made Room, and Frank) builds the characters slowly but effectively, and without dispelling every mystery. He doesn’t want to give everything away – and he certainly doesn’t want to do it quickly.
An oppressive air gathers as Ruth Wilson expertly shades in the central spark of Caroline’s personality, and all the resignations that surround it. She has withdrawn deep into herself as a way to block out life’s dark disappointments. One of the film’s few overtly violent scenes leads to one of the most effective, in which Caroline has to accept a senseless loss.
Wilson and Gleeson are quietly terrific opposite one another. Gleeson’s work here is akin to what he did with Abrahamson in Frank. Gleeson is close to being locked into playing men who use ambition as a cover for a seething insecurity and desire – but he’s so good at finding extra dimensions in that type that I can’t really fault a chance to see him explore it further.
The script, by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by Sarah Waters, revels in nuances in the evolving relationship between Faraday and the Ayres family. Abrahamson and the actors allow some uncertainties to go unresolved in a way that is engrossing rather than alienating. We know everything we need to know.
Shadows of horror gather as small bits of violence erupt, and literal warning bells sound in the house. Faraday, Caroline and Lady Ayres process their paranoias and desires through a lens of occult assumptions. Is the house haunted? Maybe, but the question of whether they think so is a lot more important than any objective answer.
Abrahamson nestles well-crafted scares into a story that could just as easily be written without genre elements. Rather than working to shock, he uses horror to create empathy. The Little Stranger doesn’t want you to be scared so much as it needs you to understand what the characters want, and what scares them.
The Little Stranger is a bit slow, and idiosyncratic in the way it strings together beats of suspense and drama. It’s a movie of negative space, of doorways and empty rooms. Faraday is framed by blank portals and spaces he can’t enter, and surrounded by the remnants of a status he’ll never possess. All the same elements surround Caroline, and the ways in which they mean very different things for her are potently communicated. Production designer Simon Elliott and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland make the dingy corridors feel almost damp; a breath of decay comes right off the screen.
Maybe Frayling’s line about horror being meant to be straightforward really applies to audiences and expectations. Even a hint of horror can create assumptions a film like The Little Stranger has no interest in satisfying. It’s not often explored, but there can be a difference between a ghost story meant to scare the audience, and exploring characters who think they’re haunted. This story of crumbling class finds that zone in a way that is odd and a bit special.